Peers back new rules to allow cloning of embryos

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The Independent Online

Peers voted by a majority of 120 last night to change the regulations governing medical research to allow "therapeutic" cloning of human embryos.

Peers voted by a majority of 120 last night to change the regulations governing medical research to allow "therapeutic" cloning of human embryos.

The vote came in the face of calls from religious leaders to put a brake on developments in the area but was welcomed by the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, Evan Harris, who first introduced the proposal to the Commons, where it also won a large majority.

"The Lords have done the morally right thing, which is to allow carefully regulated research on stem cells using early embryos to proceed in the search for cures for some terrible diseases," he said. "Large majorities in the Commons and the Lords show that the case has been made for this work."

Earlier, peers clashed over new rules for medical research with some warning they would make human life "just another accessory to be created, bartered, frozen or destroyed".

Lord Alton of Liverpool, a crossbencher, led the opposition with an impassioned plea to delay passing a statutory order that would allow the procedure to go ahead until it had been considered by a select committee.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2000 Bill would allow a limited form of "therapeutic cloning" - creating a genetically identical embryo of a patient and using "stem cells" from that embryo to treat disease.

Lord Alton, introducing an amendment that would put the research on hold, said: "It does not commend itself to me or many others outside this House. When the minister told the House of Commons a pre-14-day-old embryo had the power to facilitate cures to mankind's human misery, it simply underlined to me that, even at this early stage of development, we are not dealing here with something inconsequential," he said. "They are at the heart of our humanity."

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, a Health minister, warned peers against delaying vital research and said the order had been passed by a large majority in the Commons on a free vote.

Embryo research could help in the battle against Parkinson's disease, cancers, strokes and other serious conditions, he said, and peers should consider the importance "to those people who shoulder the burden of these terrible diseases, their families and friends as well as the wider community".

Baroness Blatch, the Tories' deputy leader in the Lords and a vice-president of the Alzheimer's Society, argued that the science on stem cell research was "anything but clear".

Baroness Northover, a Liberal Democrat and historian of medicine, declared her support for the regulations, warning peers against "delaying vital research and casting back into gloom those many patients who suffer from degenerative disorders". He added: "If it was ethically and morally acceptable to pass the 1990 [Human Fertilisation and Embryology] Act, then to see that research potentially benefit a wider section of society is surely to be welcomed."

Religious leaders had issued a joint appeal to the Lords to back an amendment proposed by Lord Alton. "These complex questions deserve to be examined in far greater detail than a brief parliamentary debate on an unamendable order would permit," they wrote. "We would therefore strongly urge the referral of these matters to a select committee of your Lordships' House, where evidence may be weighed in a calm and sober manner."